Every year, it seems, one movie is selected for special attention by the rumour mill. This season, that dubious honour falls to The Stepford Wives, a project so allegedly plagued by on-set friction, dismal test screenings, multiple reshoots and desperate 11th-hour salvage ops that it couldn't hope to be anything other than a Hindenberg-sized disaster. Added to that, of course, is the fact that it's a remake - a guaranteed lightning rod for sceptical harumphing and doom-laden punditry.
As it turns out, these prognostications are wide of the mark. For starters, it's not unusual for a movie, especially a comedy, to be saved in the cutting room (think Annie Hall). And what's wrong with remakes? As long as you're not tampering with a leave-well-alone classic, which Bryan Forbes' 1975 version of Ira Levin's spry novel isn't.
True, given its feminist backdrop, the original had some satirical bite, whereas Frank Oz's revamp simply feels up the zeitgeist for some topical jokes rather than going for the jugular. But why not? After all, we're a long way from the opening salvos of the sex wars these days, and Oz's decision to play it as broad farce pays comic dividends.
The dialogue, stemming mainly from neurotic, self-obsessed Manhattanites confronting the super-suburban weirdness of Stepford, is deliciously barbed. And while Kidman plays the lead sensibly straight, there's an abundance of over-the-top character turns to savour: Walken (the only actor who gets more watchablethe deeper he retreats into self-parody) as the tribe's alpha male; Midler as a self-help guru crying out for Stepfordisation; and Close as the town den mother whose flashes of inner Nazi are nowhere near as scary as her psychopathically sunny exterior. Best of all, though, is Roger Bart playing stereotypically gay with such flamboyant glee he makes Jack from Will&Grace look like Dick Cheney.
Truth is, it all bowls along in fine style until the dénouement approaches and the film itself suddenly becomes Stepfordised: a witty black comedy replaced by a crass, uplifting Hollywood morality tale. It's here - but only here - that the doomy naysayers receive their vindication.